Book Review: Decoding The Heavens by Jo Marchant

Looking at television and news stands, it sometimes hard to believe it’s the 21st Century. Recent polling shows that 44 percent of the American public believes in ghosts, another 36 percent believe in UFOs, and 31 percent believe in witches. Thankfully, books like Jo Marchant’s Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer — and the Century-Long Search to Discover Its Secrets help the average reader understand the importance of rational thought and analysis.

Decoding The Heavens details the discovery of and century-long effort to solve the mystery of an ancient mechanical device known as the Antikythera mechanism. The device gained its name because it came from a shipwreck discovered in 1900 when a storm forced Greek sponge divers to take shelter on the lee side of the tiny island of Antikythera, located to the northwest of Crete. A government-funded effort to recover items from the first century BCE wreck produced a variety of statutes, jars and other objects, including a heavy corroded portion of a device made largely of bronze. In 1902, someone noticed Greek inscriptions on the object and, more important, what appeared to be precise gear teeth of varying sizes. The teeth gave the object the appearance of a clock. History, though, said that such precise gear mechanisms and teeth didn’t come into use until more than 1,400 years after the ship sunk.

While archaeologists and scientists struggled for a century to figure out the creation and purpose of the device, pseudoscience easily came up with other explanations. Erich von Däniken, for example, concluded the Antikythera mechanism was a navigational instrument used in extraterrestrial spacecraft. Others claimed that because it exceeded the scientific and mechanical knowledge of the ancient Greeks it is evidence of advanced ancient civilizations still undiscovered or that these civilizations were provided advanced technology by extraterrestrials. Marchant’s lucid and generally engaging story shows the value of — and hard work involved in — the scientific method.

Marchant, a British writer, became intrigued with the Antikythera mechanism when she wrote a story on it in late 2006 for Nature magazine, for which she was then news editor. That led her to further investigate the history of the device and efforts to unlock its mysteries, ultimately leading to Decoding The Heavens. She takes us from its initial discovery — also filling the reader in on the challenges that alone presented — through the use of 21st century techniques to gather more detail for analysis. Though a non-scientific mind (like mine) may occasionally stumble as she tries to describe the inner workings of the mechanism and the various calendar cycles that might have played a role in it, the book consistently makes the story not only understandable but interesting.

Decoding The Heavens is a mystery story perhaps unlike any other. Unlocking the mystery requires knowledge of astronomy, mechanics, mathematics and language. It involved a chain of individuals whose lives seemed to be consumed by the mysteries the mechanism presented. In detailing the twists and turns in trying to determine just what the mechanism was. Marchant uses these individuals as a focus to provide a more personal perspective on how the hypotheses developed. The primary investigators included German Albert Rehm in the first part of the century, Yale professor Derek de Solla Price from 1958 to 1983, British musueum curator Michael Wright from about 1983 through today (and whose collaboration with Australian Allan Bromley would be both productive and personally trying) and, finally, a multidisciplinary international team utilizing newly developed imaging techniques and who continue working to this day.

Marchant’s straightforward prose helps make the various theories generally understandable to the lay person. The theories evolved from the device being a type of astrolabe, used to tell the time and determine latitude with reference to the position of the stars, to a type of mechanical planetarium to an ancient mechanical “computer” that could calculate astronomical events. (Use of that term, however, may have given unintended support to von Däniken and others who contended it was impossible for such a mechanism to have been produced in the first century BCE.) Both Price and the latest team have produced working models of the mechanism, although they differ in exactly what it incorporated in its display and calculations.

Equally important, Decoding The Heavens explores not only how the Greeks could have had such technology but how western civilization could have erroneously believed it could not have existed until some 1,400 years later. Thus, the Antikythera mechanism also represents not only a revolution in the history of science but demonstrates how and why ancient history should never be considered to be cast in stone.

Decoding The Heaven is a top-notch portrayal of the intellectual sweat involved in trying to decipher scientific or historical mysteries. It also demonstrates the triumph of and need for rational thought and the scientific method over more seductive, easy explanations for such mysteries.

Imagine some future civilization judging our scientific knowledge based purely on hints from Friends and Big Brother.

Jo Marchant, Decoding the Heavens

1 comment to Book Review: Decoding The Heavens by Jo Marchant

  • Sandra Oates


    I have an awful problem with the way this book uses personal perspective. Allan Bromley was a friend, who introduced me to the Antikythera mechanism back in the mid 1980s. I stayed interested in the mechanism after Allan died, so I knew that Michael Wright was continuing to work on it and I was very excited when I started to see accounts of the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project, and very pleased to see that a popular book was in the works. Reading this book, though, was a real shock.

    I contacted the author saying that her portrait of Allan Bromley was unrecognisable and to ask about her sources of information. She replied promptly, to her credit, telling me that she did not contact anyone in Australia. I find that inexplicable as well as unacceptable. For his entire, 30-year career Allan was on the academic staff of Sydney University and called Australia home. How could Marchant possibly write as she does about him without at least attempting to check her UK sources. I also wrote to Michael Wright. He replied that Marchant sent him a draft which contained errors and “passages in which she must have misunderstood just what I said or what she heard from others about Allan and me, or at least got it out of proportion or put an unintended construction on it.” He didn’t know her deadline and he thinks his comments on the draft must have been “too many and too late” for her to act on them all. After that Allan’s wife and I went through some of the correspondence between Allan and Michael. We found unequivocal evidence that Marchant’s story of the collaboration is as false as the “quoted” remarks she attributes to Allan’s wife. If Marchant had bothered to try, she could have seen that correspondence and it could have led her to an interesting, and real, account of collaboration between workers with different kinds of training. Instead she settled for inventing a very ugly character and giving him Allan’s name.

    You might have noticed that in the Acknowledgements Marchant names five members of the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project who did not speak to her after she started writing the book and where not involved with it in any way. One of those people has told me that a member of the project was asked to check the translation for a Greek edition, and found so many errors in the account of their work that the Greek edition has been released with about 60 footnotes correcting the text.

    So it seems that Marchant had input from only one of the seven primary investigators since 1985, and she’s misrepresented him.

    And yet… she writes well and she’s pulled together a lot of very disparate information about the Antikythera mechanism. You’re right that she gives a good sense of the intellectual sweat involved in real discoveries, and that’s important. You’re also right about the exploration of ideas about history and how much the Antikythera mechanism. There are holes in the account of the facts – what IS the story with the two diagrams in Chapter 9? – but the book only goes completely off the rails when it’s trying to tell a story about people.

    I don’t know. This book could have been so much better than it is. For starters, those of us with non-scientific (or non-mechanical?) minds might have stumbled less if the personal stories had been replaced by some decent illustrations: I’m still looking for a picture that brings together the rolling heavens and the moving pointers on the dials of the Antikythera mechanism.

    I guess the world isn’t perfect and books aren’t either. I just wish the imperfections of this one didn’t include a gross character smear on someone whose life was all about encouraging the joy of learning.